The Department of Veterans Affairs and its employees have pioneered some of the most notable innovations in medical history over the past half century — implantable pacemakers, nicotine patches and the first successful liver transplants, to name a few. Now, to continue driving those types of medical breakthroughs, the VA has launched the Innovators Network.
Described as “a community of VA employees who are actively engaged in work that is moving the agency forward,” VA’s Innovators Network is meant to spur collaboration among VA personnel, “no matter the distance,” Secretary Bob McDonald wrote in a little noticed blog post about the launch Monday.
“VA needs to continue to increase its ability to rapidly respond to Veterans’ needs and to deliver the best possible experience for Veterans. We can accomplish this by developing a culture of innovation,” McDonald said. “The innovation we aim for is a framework — a mode of operating, a toolset — through which we can constantly find, test, and create better ways to deliver services to our customers.”
Currently, the department is piloting the program at eight of its medical facilities across the country, including the Boston, Atlanta and Milwaukee VA medical centers. “Innovation specialists” will head up each pilot location’s development of “a culture of innovation,” according to the program’s website.
The Innovators Network resembles the IDEA Lab at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab — efforts to support federal staff with resources and connections to like-minded colleagues across the country when they have innovative ideas that might not necessarily fall under their job description but nevertheless they are passionate about and want to implement. VA employees will have the opportunity to apply for small amounts of special funding for their projects through the network’s Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Funding Program.
Much like the HHS and OPM programs, the Innovators Network also employs human-centered design — a methodology that primarily focuses on users’ needs to shape outcomes — as a guiding principle.
“Simply put, people are better served when their needs are aligned with the application and purpose of the products and services they use,” McDonald wrote. “The Innovators Network leans heavily on this development approach, and innovators will use it to build a strong understanding of VA’s clients, generate ideas for new products and services, test concepts with real people, and ultimately delver easy-to-use, consistent products and positive customer experiences.”
Additionally, the program is rooted in a variety of other core principles, such as diversity, innovation from the field, agile development and employee empowerment. That latter principle, Secretary McDonald believes, is integral to improving the veteran’s experience.
“We have no hope of improving the Veteran experience unless we improve the employee experience,” he said. “We must enable and empower employees to better care for Veterans. Innovation is how we improve the way we improve Veterans’ lives.”